Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s speaker chaos speaks volumes

Hardline Republicans’ rebellion raises questions over House Representatives’ power to advance legislation

Kevin McCarthy
Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the US House of Representatives, was elected after 15 rounds of voting
(Image credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

After finally being elected speaker of the US House of Representatives following a gruelling 15 rounds of voting, Kevin McCarthy joked: “That was easy, huh?”

Admittedly, that total falls far short of the record 133 ballots that were needed to elect a speaker back in 1855. But while McCarthy claimed that he wouldn’t “have a problem” with setting a new record for such votes, “one suspects he knows that needing several days and multiple votes to become speaker means he does indeed have a problem”, said NPR’s Washington correspondent Ron Elving.

“Governing by chaos is back,” said CNN’s White House reporter Stephen Collinson. Two years after “the master of political mayhem”, Donald Trump, “stormed out of Washington in disgrace”, the Republicans have “finally won back some power”. But if last week’s voting drama is anything to go by, “they still don’t know how to properly use it”.

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The stand-off was the work of the Freedom Caucus, a group of ultra-conservative House Republicans who only finally, grudgingly, fell into line after extracting some serious concessions from McCarthy.

Amid “heated scenes in the chamber” during the votes, said the BBC, Freedom Caucus member Matt Gaetz had almost come to blows with fellow Republican Mike Rogers, a supporter of McCarthy. Rogers had to be “physically restrained by colleagues as he bellowed and jabbed his finger” at Gaetz.

For the House to be “mired in a stalemate over the speakership” is by no means unusual, wrote history professor Joan B. Freedman for The New York Times (NYT). In fact, there have been 15 such battles in Congress’s history. Each struggle has served as “a litmus test of the state of party politics and the state of the nation”, and “our recent contest was much the same, exposing party fractures and irreconcilable differences”.

Many analysts attribute those fractures to the presidency of Trump, who left the party with an “identity crisis”, said PBS NewsHour’s Daniel Bush.

Yet despite the influence that Trump continues to wield over the party, his power has been weakened first by a chastening mid-term election for the GOP and now this. The fact that party rebels opposed to McCarthy’s speakership ignored the former president’s pleas to back the California congressman is “just the latest sign that Trump’s once-iron grip on his party is weakening”, said The Hill. And that “raises questions about his 2024 presidential bid while giving rivals more confidence they can defeat him in a primary”.

More immediately, the rebellion also raises questions about how successfully House Republicans will be able to advance legislation over the coming months and years. It could even “threaten the health and legitimacy of the US government and economy”, said The Guardian’s Joan E. Greve, especially if the “dysfunction” displayed in McCarthy’s election is reproduced when it comes to “must-pass bills” such as a government funding package or a debt ceiling hike.

“It’s tempting to laugh at McCarthy’s struggles,” said Professor Freedman in the NYT, “but history shows that this type of chaos is not a joke.”

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.